Expert Commentary

How Russia Likely Sees Nordic Defense

Olga Oliker
Senior Adviser and Director, Russia and Eurasia Program, Center for Strategic and International Studies

Sweden and Finland are moving closer to the western sphere of defense, while Norway has long held strong defense relations with the U.S. and NATO, as one of NATO’s founding members. The Cipher Brief’s Kaitlin Lavinder spoke with Olga Oliker, Senior Advisor and Director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), about how these developments are likely to be seen in Russia.

The Cipher Brief: Norway, Sweden, and Finland seem to be engaging in closer defense cooperation with the United States. Sweden and Finland recently signed new defense cooperation agreements, and Norway is expected to let more U.S. marines enter into the country in January. Is there more defense cooperation with the U.S., and if so, is this to strengthen defense vis-à-vis Russia?

Olga Oliker: The comparison between Norway, Sweden, and Finland is a bit off simply because Norway is a NATO ally and Sweden and Finland are not. You have a tremendous amount of defense cooperation built in between the Norwegians and the Americans because both are NATO allies. But there is an uptick in cooperation between the Swedes and the Finns with NATO and also with the United States.

A certain amount of the reason for this is something I would characterize, not so much as fear of a Russian threat, per se, as a desire to make it very clear to the Russians that there is security cooperation, there is partnership (even when there isn’t alliance), and the security of these countries matters to the United States as well. So less a response to a threat than a desire to make sure that the threat does not emerge.

TCB: Do you think engaging in closer defense cooperation to send that signal will inadvertently provoke the Russians more?

OO: No. That’s ridiculous. It’s an argument the Russians try to make. But if the Russians have no intention of any sort of aggressive action, then how is defensive cooperation between countries that generally have good relations and that are aligned – and, in one case, allied – in any way provocative? They’re not planning on attacks on Russia; they’re looking at various defensive measures, interoperability, and so forth. I don’t see how it’s provocative.

TCB: Even if Norway, Sweden, and Finland pose no real threat to Russia, on the flip side, does Russia pose any tangible threat to these countries?

OO: Russia has engaged in some belligerent rhetoric, regarding, for instance, the idea that possible NATO membership for current non-NATO members would make them targets of Russian nuclear weapons. That’s rhetorical, threatening language which tends to backfire, because it makes these countries think that Russia may pose a threat after all, in which case closer ties, and perhaps even alliance, is a good idea.

I think it’s a careful calibration. Does Russia pose a threat in the sense that it has real plans to invade or bomb anybody? No. But does Russian rhetoric increase the fear that a threat may emerge? Absolutely. From Russia’s perspective, it always sees a threat from the United States and from NATO, which it sees as an alliance that is designed to weaken it. So normal operations of that alliance are viewed as threatening. This is the security dilemma situation that we’re in with the Russians.  

TCB: Is there any current defense cooperation between these countries and Russia?

OO: There has been cooperation with Norway through the NATO-Russia Founding Act and NATO-Russia Council. This is, of course, now off as a result of the Ukraine crisis. Historically, there have also been a few bilateral activities. I know little about Swedish and Finnish cooperation with Russia.

TCB: If President-elect Donald Trump sticks to his line that NATO allies have to meet the two-percent of GDP defense spending goal, which would translate into European nations both within and outside of NATO needing to do more for their own defense, how could that change the dynamic of relations between these countries (Norway, Sweden, Finland), the United States, and Russia?

OO: I’m not really sure how to interpret that particular component of Donald Trump’s rhetoric. The United States cannot unilaterally kick countries out of the Alliance – that’s not how NATO works. He can’t unilaterally decide that a country is out of the Alliance. He can try to take the U.S. out of the Alliance, withdraw its support, and then perhaps try to negotiate bilateral relationships. This would be a drastic and highly disruptive move, to say the least. I suspect that if the United States withdraws from Europe, well, yes, European countries will probably up their defense spending – including non-Allies like Sweden and Finland, who don’t have the U.S. security umbrella, but do benefit from a broader stability effect for the continent. They may cooperate with one another within the NATO alliance, the EU, bilaterally. But U.S. withdrawal would be, as I said, tremendously disruptive. It would undermine the foundations on which European security is currently built.

Historically, however, the security relationship with the U.S. has been such that European security is viewed as an important component of U.S. security, as well. The U.S. has not been willing to risk threats to European security, because there has been very strong consensus that threats to Europe are antithetical to U.S. interests.

The Author is Olga Oliker

Olga Oliker is Senior Adviser and Director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). Prior to joining CSIS, Oliker held a number of senior posts at the RAND Corporation, most recently as director of RAND's Center for Russia and Eurasia. She is the author or coauthor of Russian Foreign Policy in Historical and Current Context: A Reassessment, "Building Afghanistan's Security Forces in Wartime: The Soviet Experience," "Nuclear... Read More

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